5 Reasons Your Orchid is Wilted, Droopy and Dying

Do you have a drooping, browning, dying orchid plant? There are many reasons your ochid might be struggling. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss examines the reasons your ochid may be dying, as well as how to revive it and bring it back to life.

revive dying orchid

Gardening is an act of faith. Faith that the things we do today will manifest as growth and beauty in the future. Call it foresight or what you will, it takes a keen sense of anticipatory optimism to take on a living thing with the hopes that we can nurture and help it to grow and blossom into its best form.

Some plants are easy to care for, and the reward of blooming comes quickly and frequently. Then there are the many different types of orchids, blooming in all different colors. Fussy, particular about their surroundings, orchids love humidity but are prone to root and leaf rot. They love bright light, but they burn in direct sun.

If you have taken on the responsibility of caring for an orchid and it has repaid you by wilting, shriveling, dropping its leaves, or otherwise failing to thrive, you are not alone. To understand how to bring an orchid back from the brink, it is important to identify why your orchid is not happy. Let’s delve into some reasons that an orchid may not be performing well and see if we can’t get that orchid back in blooming condition.

If You’ve Been Overwatering

Close-up of orchid roots, its yellow and green leaves in a transparent pot on a white background. The leaves are dense, long, with parallel veins, coming from a thick stem. Two leaves at the base of the plant are yellow-orange, sluggish.
Orchids need good watering, but with excessive watering, their roots begin to rot and the leaves turn yellow.

The main killer of indoor orchids is overwatering. Orchid roots need a lot of air circulation and although they like a good watering, much like a succulent, they thrive best when allowed to dry out between waterings. Orchids need specialized potting mediums and containers that allow for maximum air circulation around their roots as well.

In their native habitat, most species of orchids are, essentially, air plants. They grow on trees and their roots are completely exposed to the air. Although they live in areas that get a lot of rain and are very humid, their roots get a lot of air circulation, so they don’t rot as easily as they do when kept indoors.

This need for air circulation around the orchid’s root system is part of what makes them a challenge to keep as houseplants. If your their leaves are turning yellow and looking droopy, or even falling off altogether, there is a solid chance that there is some root rot going on behind the scenes.

Fixing the Problem

If you’ve been overwatering, there are several steps you’ll want to take to fix the problem. Here’s a step by step walkthrough on fixing an overwatered orchid.

Step 1: Check For Root Rot

The best way to check for root rot is to remove your orchid from its container and inspect the roots. If your orchid’s roots are rotting it needs intervention as soon as possible if there is to be any hope of survival.

Remove the orchid from its container and gently shake the potting medium away from the roots. If they are light green and flexible, they are healthy.  Black and mush means you’ve got a problem. If the roots are completely rotted and the leaves are dropping, it may be too late. The key to kicking root rot is catching it early on and altering the plant’s environment.

Step 2: Purge Diseased Roots

If there are still some healthy roots, or your roots are darkened but not yet mushy, you’ve still got a chance at bringing it back to a state of good health. Using a clean, sharp tool, cut away any diseased roots. Treat the remaining roots, and especially the areas you have cut, with a fungicide, such as powdered sulfur. A light dusting is sufficient, you don’t want to coat the entire root system in it.

Step 3: Repotting

There are a few simple steps for repotting an orchid if you choose to go that route.

First, Lay the plant on a clean, dry paper towel or cloth, and allow the roots to dry out completely. Once the roots are dry, re-pot your orchid in a fresh potting mix. The type of potting medium is very important when it comes to potting orchids. They need a specialized medium made predominantly from bark, charcoal, and pumice, which allows maximum air circulation to the roots.

Make sure you are not putting the plant back into a pot that still contains fungus without disinfecting it. Use a pot with lots of ventilation such as an hanging basket or terra cotta pot made especially for orchids.

Step 4: Watering & Care

Going forward, make sure to only water once per week if you’re keeping your orchid inside, and allow the potting medium to dry out in between waterings.

If You’ve Been Underwatering

Close-up of a non-blooming orchid on a light windowsill with dry gray roots over a flower pot. The leaves of the orchid are dark green, dull, grayish in color, slightly wrinkled due to lack of water. A wooden orchid support is inserted into a flower pot.
A sign of insufficient watering is sluggish, wrinkled, and dehydrated leaves.

Although less of a problem than overwatering, underwatering can be an issue as well, especially if you’ve been very diligent about avoiding overwatering. An underwatered orchid will have limp leaves that look dehydrated and shriveled. The best way to check for this, though, is again to look at the roots.

Healthy orchid roots will be light green, nearly white, and will be plump and flexible. While rotting roots will be dark and mushy, dry roots will be a faded grey color, dry, and brittle.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when in bloom, orchids need a bit more water to support the needs of the flowers. Another indicator of underwatering is when flowers wilt, dry out and fall off much sooner than they ought to.

Fixing the Problem

Like overwatering, there are several steps you can take to fix an underwatered plant, and they are slightly easier.

Step 1: Submerge The Roots in Water

Fill a sink or basin with room temperature water and submerge the orchid’s container in the water. Be careful to only submerge the roots, as the plant will be vulnerable due to dehydration, and water pooling in the leaves can cause them to rot.

Step 2: Allow the Roots to Soak

Allow your pot to soak in the water for 20-30 minutes, to give the roots an opportunity to rehydrate. Then, remove from the water and allow the container to drain completely. It may be tempting to compensate for underwatering by overwatering, but the vulnerability of the plant needs to be considered. Damaged roots and leaves are more susceptible to rot, so getting on a good watering regimen is the best course of action here.

Step 3: Repeat as Necessary

Repeat the process of watering by submerging only once the potting medium has dried out, and then once per week after that should be plenty.

If Your Humidity is Too Low

A small, round, wooden humidifier releases moisture onto a hand placed above. A blooming orchid stands next to a humidifier. The orchid has bright purple flowers and dark green, long leaves. In the blurred background, there is a green pillow on a colored blanket.
Add a humidifier, or place the plant in a new location to improve the humidity.

Orchids naturally like a humid environment. As high as 60-80% is the preferred level for most species. The symptoms of lack of humidity are much the same as underwatering.

To determine which is the problem is a simple question of how you have been caring for your plant. If you see dry, shriveling leaves and pseudobulbs, but you know you have been diligent about weekly watering, a lack of humidity could be the issue.

If you are keeping your orchids indoors, you almost certainly will need to supplement the level of humidity naturally present inside your home.

Fixing the Problem

A problem with low humidity is a bit easier to solve. There are a number of different solutions you can use in order to bring humidity up to a point where your plant will thrive.

Step 1: Pick a New Location

There are a handful of solutions to the humidity issue. I keep my orchids in a sunny bathroom where the humidity stays around 65% most of the time. Bathrooms and kitchens tend to be the rooms in a house with the highest humidity, so placing them in these rooms will mean less work trying to create higher levels. Misting can help, but you really would have to mist several times per day to make up for the lack of ambient humidity.

Step 2: Use a Humidifier

A humidifier is a great tool. Adding a humidifier to the area of your house where you keep your orchids will do the trick pretty well but be careful about other items in the room that may be susceptible to constant humidity. If the humidity in a room is consistently high, wallpaper can peel, and mold can grow.

Step 3: Use a Watering Dish

Another way to provide humidity to your orchid without raising the level of humidity in the entire room, is to place a dish of water beneath the pot. An orchid’s roots should never sit in water, as this will cause that dreaded root rot, so place some stones on the dish to elevate the pot just above the water level.

Orchids With Too Much Sunlight

Close-up of a sunburned orchid leaf. An orchid in a white pot, on a wooden windowsill, has large, elongated, ovate leaves with yellow and orange-brown-white sunburn spots.
Due to the direct sunrays, orchid leaves can get reddish-brown sunburn.

Orchids do love bright light, but they don’t like direct sun. Some species can handle a few hours of direct sunlight in the morning, but in general, they prefer to be protected from direct rays for most of the day.

An orchid that has faded leaves that appear bleached, or has reddish brown ‘sunburn’ marks, is probably getting too much direct sunlight. Sunburn on an orchid creates another situation of vulnerability for the plant, which ultimately kills the leaves through rot. Once a leaf is burned, there is no bringing it back to health, sadly, sun damage to orchids can’t be undone. But the entire plant doesn’t have to die.

Fixing the Problem

Fixing a plant with too much sunlight can be a bit more difficult, depending on how much sun damage the plant has taken on. Let’s look at how to fix it.

Step 1: Inspect For Sun Damage

Keep a close eye on your orchid’s leaves and look for signs of sun damage. The best remedy is prevention. At the first sign of faded leaves and burn spots, relocate your plant to a place with less direct, more filtered light.

Step 2: Monitor Dry Leaves

Keep watch on any leaves that are damaged over the next week or so, as leaves that have been burned can go in one of two directions. They can stay as they are, and gradually dry out, or they can develop rotten areas that will spread and can affect the health of the entire plant.

Step 3: Prune Off Impacted Leaves

If you observe any rot on your orchid’s leaves, use a sharp, sterile tool to remove the leaves as close to the base as possible, and lightly dust the cut with fungicide.

Orchids With Not Enough Sunlight

Close-up of roots and leaves of a phalaenopsis orchid in a transparent flower pot on a white window sill indoors. Orchid leaves have a healthy appearance, bright dark green color, elongated, ovate, with parallel veins. Orchid roots are on top of the soil substrate and have light green and brown hues.
Your orchid will not flower unless it gets enough indirect sunlight.

This is a tricky one because an orchid that is getting enough light to create photosynthesis will produce plenty of dark green growth. In fact, it may appear lush and healthy. But the right amount of light to create photosynthesis is less than an orchid needs to produce flowers, and that is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

If your orchid is producing plenty of new growth, but the leaves are dark green and you haven’t seen a flower for a year, you probably need to find a spot with a bit more light.

How to Fix it:

Fixing a plant that’s not getting enough light is much easier than fixing a plant that’s had too much sunlight, and it usually just requires moving your plant to a new location.

Step 1: Evaluate Your Location

Evaluate your planting location, and make sure your plant has enough light coming in. If not, then it’s probably time to move.

Step 2: Relocate Your Plant

Look for a spot that gets lots of bright, indirect sunlight daily. Orchids appreciate about the same amount of light as an African violet. If all else fails, see if you can find a spot outdoors to move your orchid to a few times a week, to increase the amount of light it absorbs. Did I mention that orchids are high-maintenance?

Step 3: Relocate as Needed

If your new location isn’t your favorite place for your new plant, you can always relocate as needed. Meaning you can keep your orchid in the place you’d like it to stay most of the time, and rotate it in and out into the more sun-friendly location as needed.

Final Thoughts

Striking the right balance of light, water, and humidity can be a challenge when raising orchids. If you’re just starting out, know that even seasoned orchid enthusiasts and collectors can run into problems with a new plant that they didn’t anticipate, based on prior experience.

A bit of research about the species of orchid you are dealing with will go a long way in terms of providing the right environment to encourage maximum growth and flower formation. Not all orchids like the same amount of light and water and knowing the needs of your specific plant is a major advantage in keeping an orchid healthy and thriving.

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